- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The VA on Wednesday finally embraced the Choice Card program Congress created in the wake of last year’s waiting list scandal, but said it will need some changes to clean up a convoluted bureaucracy and make the program sustainable for the long run.

The Choice Cards were meant to give veterans who’d waited too long for appointments or who lived too far from Veterans Affairs clinics the chance to see private doctors, at government expense. The VA had initially resisted the program, saying it took resources away from its core mission — but on Wednesday said it wanted to see the cards become a firm part of the way the VA handles business.

“These efforts won’t just improve the way we do community care — they will make community care part of the fabric of VA care, making VA a truly integrated health care system,” Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of the VA, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

His plan would clarify patient eligibility requirements, streamline the co-pay and provider billing and reimbursement process, create a “high-performing network” of private doctors who work with the VA and improve how the agency shares medical records with non-VA doctors.

Mr. Gibson said the VA would need a “one time” budget of $421 million for the upcoming fiscal year to start fine-tuning the integrated health care system. The effort will then cost between $400 to $600 million every year, according to VA figures, but could be costlier if the improvements in the program attract new patients who want to participate in it.

The VA’s beleaguered healthcare system had seen an influx of patients in recent years and had not been able to keep up with the growth, leading to long wait times for appointments, Mr. Gibson said. Wait times became so long that some clinics began to shuffle veterans to secret lists to try to make their processing times look better. Dozens of veterans at the Phoenix, Arizona, facility died while languishing on its wait lists, according to a watchdog investigation.

SEE ALSO: Lawmakers, advocates clash over VA sexual-assault bill

The $10 billion Choice Card program was launched last year to give veterans another option.

Dr. Baligh Yehia, assistant undersecretary for health for community care, said the VA hoped to focus more on establishing a new referral system for doctors within the new integrated network and to improve customer service.

Committee members said they were encouraged by the plan, despite some concerns about how feasible it would be to implement the new plan efficiently.

Some Democrats have warned that the choice program is the first step toward privatizing the VA, but committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said private doctors would “supplement, not supplant” VA doctors. He said in-house VA care will continue to grow, though some VA facilities not operating at full potential might be shut down.

“I don’t really think we need to say that this is non-VA care,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican, said. “I think we should shift away from calling it non-VA care but extending VA care.”

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide